Like many British millennials, the best part of my teenage years were spent in dingy bedrooms and sweaty nightclubs listening to music that my parents didn’t understand, and drinking as much cheap alcohol as I could lay my hands on. From the age of 14 going right up until I started studying at university in my mid-twenties, pretty much all of my weekends (and even some weeknights) were dedicated to getting drunk. And for a fair few years this proved a pretty fun and carefree pastime. In fact, nothing will ever quite compare to the contentment I used to feel on those lazy post-binge days when I’d spend hours snuggled up with my mates in blankets, drinking tea, eating dirty pizza, and watching endless crap on TV. The hangovers we endured weren’t pretty, of course, but the sense of comfort and belonging that we found in each other’s company made the pain and the sickness feel totally worthwhile.
With alcohol having been such a big part of my life throughout my early adolescence, I can’t help thinking now about why I was so drawn to drinking in the first place. As someone who’s always felt uncomfortable socialising in big groups, maintaining friendships and forging new ones has always been a slightly tricky affair. One of the benefits of drinking alcohol when I was growing up was that it gave me the confidence, albeit fleeting, to talk to people and let loose on the dance floor without feeling self-conscious. Getting drunk was also useful when it came to becoming sexually active, endowing me with the courage to flirt and have sex without feeling embarrassed or ashamed of my body. Meeting friends at the pub after a busy shift at work was something to look forward to, and the ritual of going out on a Friday or Saturday night helped to make the responsibilities of adult life feel a little less difficult and serious.
Thinking about all of the fun times I had and great friends I made throughout my heavy drinking days, it’s easy to look back on my teenage years with fondness and nostalgia. But ignoring the dark times just wouldn’t be honest.
And dark times there certainly were.
Immediately springing to mind is the time that I gave myself alcohol poisoning after drinking six cans of Special Brew (more commonly seen in the hands of homeless alcoholics) and spent the whole week afterwards feeling like my insides were being squeezed through a mangle, convinced that I’d eaten a dodgy kebab. Coming in at number one in the regretful memory charts, though, is the night that I drank so much cider that I ended up passed out in the street after leaving my friends at a party and had to be chaperoned to my doorstep by the police. Bragging to my friends the following day about how I’d been sick out of the police car window on the way home proved pretty funny at the time. But looking back I can only cringe with embarrassment at the thought of how inebriated I must have been.
The ritual of going out on a Friday or Saturday night helped to make the responsibilities of adult life seem a little less difficult and serious.
For years my weekends were spent binging on whatever booze I could afford – from cheap white cider in the early days, to wine and gin more recently – and not without consequence to my mental and physical health. As well as suffering from recurring kidney infections and bouts of depression and anxiety throughout my twenties, in 2012 I was diagnosed with thyroid disease – a common condition that has links to alcohol abuse (Forefront Health), and one that has seriously affected my overall health and self-esteem. Of course, there’s no way of knowing if I would have developed the condition if I’d drank less or abstained from alcohol altogether, but that doesn’t stop me from wondering if it’s something that could have been avoided.
Health issues aside, though, the other problem I’m faced with now as someone who’s chosen to cut heavy drinking out of my life as much as possible is alienation from certain social activities and a general feeling of impending doom in most, if not all, social gatherings. I can recall many birthday parties, festivals, and events that I’ve taken great pains to avoid over the last few years, not because I don’t want to spend time with my friends or let my hair down, but because it’s no fun being the only sober person at the party, especially when chronic introversion is involved.
Thinking about my personal experience, it’s easy to understand why so many people continue to go out and get pissed even when they don’t really want to. Drinking alcohol and getting drunk is such a big part of British culture and so vital to so much of our social behaviour that choosing not to do it can make you feel pretty boring, not to mention awkward making conversation without that all important dose of Dutch courage. In my case, abandoning heavy drinking has led to me losing a large part of my social life, either due to growing bored with drunken conversation and behaviour, or losing interest in activities that are only really fun when drinking’s involved. Friday night down the pub springs to mind as one example.
However, as much as cutting down on booze has had what often feels like a negative impact on my social life, and caused me to feel like an outsider in my own friendship group at times, I have no desire to go back to how I was. That’s not to say that I haven’t enjoyed my fair share of booze-fuelled bonding sessions. I’ve had many of these, and I shall remember them fondly. But as useful as alcohol has been for breaking down social barriers and helping me to get to know people more intimately, I strongly believe that true friends and dedicated lovers will always make an effort to put the hard work in, regardless of any awkwardness that sobriety may bring.
I can’t deny that some of the best experiences of my life have involved either getting drunk or being hungover with people that I love and care deeply about. But for all the spectacular parties I’ve been to and all the amazing people I’ve met over the years, feeling safe, physically healthy, and stable in my mind is worth far more to me now than any fun night out.